Friday, August 15, 2014

Phan Thiet to Mui Ni and a breakage of fortune

John busted his tyre... I know, there is a theme here and that theme is that bike tyres are no match for Vietnamese roads. It happened about 3km from where we stayed last night. So we pulled off the road to get it fixed but the guy said he would need to go back to Phan Thiet to get a new inner tube so we were stranded on one of the most beautiful beaches we have seen so far called Mui Ni Beach. What is an intrepid traveller to do? Well, I don't know about most but we found a tiki hut on the beach, we ordered a couple of beers (if I can only pick one, the red Saigon Larger is quite good actually), we played in the nice, calm waves and we hired a surfboard to mess around because the waves were rubbish (down side to low season I guess). As we were relaxing under the tiki hut, a jet ski roared past and a man rose from the ocean like Iron Man. He had boots that use the water sprayed from the jet ski to lift him into the air, its called Fly Boarding. To be honest, these guys could have been asking any price and we still would have been willing to pay it just for 5 mins on the thing. As it turned out, they were asking $50 for 10 so we agreed to meet them at 10am the next morning. We booked a hostel on the opposite side of the road to the beach (its almost always cheaper there) and spent the rest of the day on the beach. Excited doesn't quite articulate how I felt about the arrangement!

Remember what I was saying about resorts and clean beaches? Well this is another example of that. The staff are super friendly even though we are staying elsewhere which is probably helped by the fact that we have made an effort to buy beer every hour... what a glorious chore.

Speaking of bike repairs, John's luggage rack snapped yesterday so we spent a day in Phan Thiet which we would not have otherwise but by chance we ended up at a place near a rocky beach that had a creek running through it and was totally charming. My taste in public hangouts has been cultivated over many years and has been best described by my brother as follows: it must have the right amount of "dank". The super shiny, super modern bars with stainless steel and Swarkofzki crystal and glass interiors absolutely will not do. It has to have character (which fortunately coincides with John's tastes) and the place where we had dinner had that and really good food so we won on both fronts. Our nha nghi was slightly too dank but at a very reasonable price so no complaints there either.

As it happens, an extra day on Mui Ni Beach turned into three. We went Fly Boarding the second day and went to a place called Joe's for dinner. Apparently there are two places to go for night life in Mui Ni and we liked Joe's so much and the people we met there, that we never quite got to the other spot. It is a rocking little strip of beach and so far the best we have found for a mix of beauty, sun, water sports and social opportunity. I know this isn't what you are supposed to say as an intrepid traveller but finding someone who speaks your language after weeks of misunderstandings is so amazing. Alas, we needed to keep moving so we packed up our stuff and are ready to head to Nha Trang. This leg of our trip will take about 5 days so I will keep you posted on how that goes!

Xox Jane

Intrepid Travellers

I really need to look up the dictionary definition of Intrepid Travelling. I think it means travelling outside of your comfort zone. John thinks it means seeing a place you want to see that is off the beaten track and working out a way to get there without using usual means. We both agree that we were intrepid travellers after our day on the Ho Tram Strip.

It was hot... really hot... and we were cycling along the waterfront in the blistering sun with sand dunes on one side of the road and beach on the other when a monstrous resort loomed up in front of us. 'I bet that place has a pool' I commented wistfully 'I wonder if they would let us use it for an hour'. We decided that there was no harm in trying so we cycled up to the grandiose entrance and, covered in sweat from our cycling we parked our bikes at the front and were greeted by the concierge. We informed him that we were cycling through and while we had no intention of staying the night due to the fact that we were tight ass travellers, we would very much like to use the pool. The concierge, whose name will remain anonymous for the safety of his job, arranged for us to park our bikes in the car park and showed us where the pool was. It had a freaking swim up bar! So of course we drank our weight in delicious fruit cocktails and swum around until 4pm when we had to leave to beat the sun to a cheap hostel down the road, a nha nghi called Gia Huan in Binh Chau. The rooms were OK but I can't help wonder what it would have been like at the Grand. I bet they had a shower.

All in all we cycled 41kms and we had a most enjoyable day!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The biggest Buddha statue in Asia... maybe

We set out at 7.30 this morning hoping to see the biggest Buddha in Asia (according to a random commenter on TravelFish). It was pretty big but I don't know if it is the biggest, there is one in Thailand that is about the same size I think. Having said that, it was incredibly beautiful and in the most amazing tropical forest setting. You take a cable car from the base of Ta Cu mountain and you are suspended above the forest many many meters high. The canopy is a tangle of trees and vines which drape over the vegetation like a massive, lush, green blanket. This is almost the best part aside from the Buddha and makes the 180,000vnd ticket more than worthwhile. Then you set off up the mountainside where stone steps guide you past a beautiful pagoda and up into a clearing where the reclining Buddha rests serenely amongst the trees; a stark, white contrast to the deep green of the trees and moss and the deep browns and greys of the stone and rock surrounding it. There are a lot of stairs leading up the mountain to the statue! 300 - 500 metres of steps at least.

We found some more stairs (382 to be precise) before we reached Ta Cu mountain which lead to a statue of Mary. It seems that the main religions practiced here are Buddhism and Catholicism and it is interesting, to me at least, that the art and the visible act of worship is very similar. The statues are like shrines and offerings of incense are laid before them. In the two places visited today, the sculptures are painted white and are very simple but beautiful in form and expressions. The Buddhist statues often have offerings of food as well which is an aspect of the faith that I do not understand well. One of the statues today had a dragon offering created out of vegetables and fruit which was stunningly intricate.

By the time we had finished with all our touristy stuff it was 3pm and we still had 40+ km to get to a nha nghi so off we went. John was really looking forward to the stretch of coast running to Phan Thiet so we took a detour to reach the Ta Cu Mountain and looped around the top on highway 1 and back down on the northern side of the mountain towards the coast and through some national park. We could have continued along the main road to Phan Thiet (our goal for the day) and cut out a big chunk but would have missed the coast. The road was quite hilly and after all the stairs, the hills felt like mountains (I have mentioned that we aren't super cyclists right?) but we were immediately put at ease by the meandering countryside and friendly waves from people as we cycled past. About 2km from the coast we stopped in a cafe with a brilliant view of dragon fruit 'trees' and sand dunes. We had a coffee watching some children climb up a tree to pick logan berries from its branches. One little one with a broken arm left no doubt to its origins with his bravery at the very top of the tree.

The last 22km was along the coast and I am so glad that we went the extra kms to see it. We did stop at a resort along the way to see if we could stay the night because it looked totally awesome with a moat and what looked like a jungle gym but unfortunately it was closed for rennovations. This is a shame because from where we were cycling, the beaches looked spectacular and comparatively clean. We will definitely be back!

Not sure about Phan Thiet yet because it was pretty late when we arrived but so far so good. We need to stay an extra day so that we can get John's bike fixed (the tray on the back snapped and duct tape is not doing its job) which suits me fine because tomorrow night I want to see the red sand dunes!

Xox speak soon!


Monday, August 11, 2014

Bus to Vung Tau

Travelling by nature involves a fair bit of misunderstandings and general confusion. Ours today was trying to book a bus from Saigon to Vung Tao. What a mess! But after arguing with the station guards, we and our bikes were on our way to the small beach town we have heard so much about. Cheating, I know but we won't have enough time to see it all so some parts are going to have to involve a little cheating.
I have just realised that my on-the-go blogging app is scrambling my posts so I apologize if I am less coherent than usual (I know I haven't set the bar very high to begin with). As soon as I get connected to a real PC with decent internet I will go back and update (and hopefully upload some maps and pics for you too!)
We arrived in Vung Tau on a Saturday night, which seems to be the busiest night. People from HCMC holiday here because it is so close and perhaps our view was skewed due to the sheer number of holiday makers on the strip but it seemed, in the budget places at least that they were not in the least bit interested in our patronage. To be fair, they seemed to be mostly booked out for the night and the atmosphere was very much like Cavil Ave on the Gold Coast during schoolies week so we might have had a better reception if we had arrived on a week night or if we booked ahead. Seeing as we had been disorganized up to this point, we saw no real reason to start booking ahead now and we did find a nha nghi basically on the beach for 500,000 so we were fine. We only stayed one night and hit the bikes the next day to cycle from Vung Tau, 21km up the coast and past Long Hai Beach.
Long Hai Beach really needs to be seen to be believed. There are tents set up on the sand with restaurants underneath, it has a carnival atmosphere and the pungent aroma of garbage and rotting sea food is overpowering. I know that the environmental consequences of beach resorts are complex but from my observation, if there isn't a resort, no one seems to give a toss about the quality of the shoreline and there is rubbish tossed everywhere, especially plastic bags filled with i-don't-know-what. As soon as a resort backs onto the beach, they seem to keep the rubbish off the beach... I don't know where they put it but at least it isn't in the water.
Somehow, this does not take away from the feverish excitement on the water front and people relax in beach chairs under tarps drinking out of coconuts and full glasses of iced tea. The kids play in the water and build sandcastles while parents and family eat on the beach. Fishing boats are scattered out a few hundred metres from the coast, painted in blue, jade, green and other bright colours while round fibre glass buckets about 2m in diametre, also for fishing are dotted along the shoreline. There is a Buddhist temple built up on the hillside running down to the beach and then resorts running the rest of the way up the coast where beach access is restricted. We cycled along past the resorts and an 18 hole golf course (again, I am sure environmentally complicated but no rubbish). That is when my tyre went flat.
Normally, there are bike repair guys everywhere but not this time so we pulled off the road into a road stop and turned the bike on its side to repair the puncture. There were a group of men drinking tea out the front and I guess they were bored because they took the repair kit from John's hand and started to work on the tyre. They stuffed it up (with 2 patches) and I had to get it done again the next day but it was totally entertaining watching 6 men work to fix a tiny hole caused by a sliver of metal no bigger than a staple. We couldn't get much further that day and luckily for us there was a nha nghi 3km down the road with a beautiful room for 300,000 and a tiki bar across the road.
Well rested, we are ready to hit the road.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A night in Ha Tien and a moving hotel to Ho Chi Minh City

We stayed overnight in Ha Tien and in the morning, we headed to the memorial in the mountain for 130 Vietnamese murdered by the Khemer Rouge. The memorial is set on a rocky outcrop with a stellar view of the surrounding countryside. For about 5,000vnd we could park our bikes in the car park, walk up the mountain and look around.
We went back into town and met a Vietnamese man named Toan who is working alone in Ha Tien and was happy for some company so we had coffee on the river front and dinner at his favorite eatery before looking around the markets. Ha Tien seems like a very chilled out town, still not used to tourists but lots to see and do in our 24 he stay. It is also the gateway to Cambodia so there are men on motorbikes selling tours everywhere. One tried to sell to us (unsuccessfully I might add) while we were traversing a particularly busy roundabout which was a bit stressful.
At 9.30 we caught an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minn City. They charged us a lot (we thought) to put the bikes in the storage compartment under the bus at 300,000 (considering our tickets were only 180,000 each) but the seats were huge and there was enough room to stretch out and sleep the 8+hrs to Ho Chi Minn City. We arrived at 8am or there abouts and cycled for the first time in HCMC traffic. I am sure that I have said this before but once you get into the flow, it really isn't as crazy as it looks. We decided to stay in district 3 for a night, mostly to see what it is like outside of the backpacker area but also to get our laundry done, which was gross after a week of rain and humidity.
We had dinner at a funky place with stencil art on the walls, good food and the second cutest kitten besides Honey obviously. Speaking of Honey, she is staying with my parents in Winfield and at about the time that we are relaxing on the beach, my parents are building a scaffold around a 10m tree that she climbed to escape a neighbours dog only to discover that claws work better going up than they do going down. Poor Honey! If we stay here for an extended amount of time, I must see if it is difficult flying her here to stay with us. I digress, we got our laundry done and got ready for the first part of our HCMC to Hanoi by bicycle adventure.
Xox Jane

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Phu Quoc Island

So after 2 big (for us) days of cycling, we arrived in Reach Gia. This is one of I think, two major ports with ferries to Ph Quoc Island. It is a cute Dockside town and we stayed at one of many nha nghis by the ferry terminal. There are market stalls along the river that looked fun but were shutting down as we arrived in town. The hotel sold us tickets for the Super Dong which is a fast ship/ferry which goes straight to Phu Quoc Island leaving at 8am the next morning. The tickets were 350,000vnd and then I think 50,000 or there abouts per bicycle when we arrived at the ship the next morning.
About 2 hours later we landed on the island. Now, my understanding of politics is limited but apparently there is some argument between Vietnam and Cambodia as to who owns Phu Quoc especially considering the attractiveness to foreigners (seemingly Russian predominantly but there were a lot of wealthy Vietnamese tourists too). We met a couple from the UK too but more about them later. The ferry terminal was about 20 km from During Doing Beach which seemed to be where most of the action was. There were of course moto-taxis, motorbike rentals and mini busses to take us there but we chose to ride. There is a lot of construction so the roads are good I'm some places and really rough in others but we made good time to the place we wanted to stay.
We read a scathing review of the Moon Resort (also Luna Resort) that said it was close to camping and that it wasn't worth the 15USD but that it had beach access so we thought we would check it out. It has become my impression that people who write reviews on TripAdvisor are expecting 5star accommodation from budget venues because we got a beach hut to ourselves complete with fans, mosquito-net, shower and lockable doors for 200,000vnd a night. We really liked it and although the staff weren't particularly friendly, there were three guys who really made an effort to be helpful and we ended up staying there for 6 nights. No complaints especially considering the price and beach proximity! It was low season so the water was really rough but the weather report said that it was going to be nice on the Saturday so we booked a boat tour for fishing and snorkeling for that day.
The English couple we met came snorkelling with us too. Ms D and Mr C are from Northern UK but are living in Hong Kong teaching English and Sport. Hearing about our hut on the beach, they came to visit us a couple of times and took us to a bar owned by a Britt with the biggest gekko I have ever seen living behind the bar. We were taken from our hotel by bus on our snorkelling day, to the boat, then out to two spots for snorkeling where John and I played with hermit crabs and checked out the reef. We had a bit of time on the boat, including lunch, then an hour at the beautiful Sao Beach before the bus dropped us off at our hotel. We had pizza for dinner (250,000vnd so more than our accommodation but totally worth it). Our time on During Doing beach was mostly beers on the beach, eating out and relaxing.
We wanted to see the rest of the island so we cycled to a home stay in the hills called Pepper Farm only 16km from the Moon Resort. On the way we found what used to be an air strip but is now used for commuting. The trucks used in construction around the place are turning the dirt roads into mud pits so the airstrip provides an easier thoroughfare. Cows roam freely with wooden bells around their necks. We cycled up into the hills and arrived at the farm around 3pm. Jenny and her husband Trung own the farm and there are several huts amongst the pepper trees. Their daughter An and her fiend took us to a creek so that we could go for a swim. It was like having pixie guides because they skipped on ahead of us giggling while we got stuck in the mud and shrubs. The swimming hole was nice and we didn't find any crocodiles.
The next day, we cycled through the hills to a beach to the north east of the island. It was a 32km round trip and the rainforest was incredibly beautiful. We didn't realise at the time that we a would have to make the trip again the next day to get to a different ferry terminal this time going to Ha Tien. Unfortunately, the road through the national park has been closed and as a result, the second trip was tougher through rain, mud and sand to get to the ferry but we made it with 2 hours to spare and were off to Ha Tien.
xox Jane

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cycling to Can Tho

The inspiration for this trip comes from a few places - that Top Gear episode, wanting to experience another culture (wishing I was better travelled), wanting to change career, wanting to be fitter etc. So far the experience has been better than I could imagine! I did a bit of research before we hit the road so, if like me, you stumbled on to this page looking through blogs for others who have cycled Vietnam, then let me tell you what I have learnt so far:
- John and I are not cyclists (I am not fit although John's fitness is quite good) but the terrain in the Mekong Delta is really flat and there are heaps of places to stop for a drink or a relax if the going gets tough. The first couple of days we only made 20-30km, which I guess is pretty shitty by cycling standards but good enough for us and gives plenty of time to slow down and take in the scenery, meet cool people etc. We have done one 50km ride out of Tra Vinh, stopping at a road house before Can Tho and today is shaping up to be 60-70km. I have found that my fitness is increasing every day on the bike.
- Get up early for the big rides. We are here during the wet season and by 9am it is hot! I am not a morning person so its a bit tough getting out of bed but it is so worth it. We left at 6am this morning and are so ahead of time that we can relax in one of the many road houses with hammocks to hide from the hottest part of the day (midday until 2pm).
- You will get rained on if you come to the Delta in the wet season so buy one of the 5000 vnd raincoats from the side of the road. Its not fun to wear but it will waterproof your pack just fine and the rain comes as a welcome relief from the hot weather. Don't try to cycle in the really heavy rain because the trucks don't slow down and you might get sprayed if they find a pothole near you.
- Even when you are exhausted from the heat, cycling, communicating and everything else that comes from travelling, always say hello to people being friendly. We realised that we were not going to make it to Can Tho so we pulled off the road into a small guest house (they are not always on Google but there are heaps of guest houses, especially on main roads). It was so weird and I guess the power had gone out but one of the guests came out of his room when he heard us trying so speak Vietnamese to the landlord and helped translate for us. I was exhausted and my first instinct was to thank him for his help and then retreat to our room never to speak to him again. Instead, when it was time for dinner, we knocked on his door and invited him to come to dinner with us. We discovered that his name is Hieu, he is Vietnamese, went to uni in Sydney and that he works for an organisation that supports rural communities to become sustainable and to deal with climate change. He showed us his favorite place to eat and taught us about customs we should know about. Basically he made what was going to be a fairly tame night, amazingly memorable AND he called us when we got to Can Tho and took us out with his work colleagues that night. Awesome!
- Wear cotton under garments - imagine what it feels like wearing a plastic  bag in a steam room and you are pretty close to how nylon knickers feel.
- Vietnamese made bikes (at least the 3 million vnd ones) need a bit of work as you go and even if you don't skimp and get a decent bike (which I would do if I had my time again) bring a set of Allen keys, two adjustable wrenches (one should be small for tight spots), a Phillips head screw driver, tube repair kit and bike pump. Remember: if it moves and it shouldn't you need duct tape, if it doesn't move and it should you need WD40. This will help for small repairs until you can get to a Rau Xe (motor cycle repair guy) and comfort adjustments. Check that the handlebars, seats etc. are the right height.
- Buy a gel seat cover. They are like $20 from Kmart - maybe cheaper here but I haven't seen any and I wouldn't risk it because these things are worth their weight in gold. Your butt is gonna hurt regardless but it is a whole lot better with the gel than without. You can get all sorts of other devices in this vein, like the shorts with inbuilt padding but we aren't that hardcore - you might like to be though - go for a long cycle before you get here and you will see what I am talking about (or type "sore butt from cycling" into Google and see what comes up.
- Your definition of a 'road' and Google Maps' definition of a road may be slightly different in Vietnam but try not to worry if it looks like a dirt track because you can normally get through. We only had to walk through a swamp once.
- The traffic isn't as nuts as it first appears, in fact the method to the madness becomes clear after a bit. Stay as far to the Right as possible unless there is someone coming the wrong way, someone is pulling their restaurant on the road or you are worried that the pothole will swallow you and your bike (go around those). Don't panic about the beeping, they are just letting you know that they are there - the louder the horn, the less likely they are going to slow down for you. Give way to anything bigger than you (so basically everything)

Lastly, have fun, this place is incredibly beautiful and you will meet some incredibly friendly people. They may not see many foreigners but they are generally very warm towards us when we are warm towards them. I would also recommend finding, wherever possible, hotel owners who speak English - local knowledge is invaluable and takes some of the stress out of finding your way around.

Xox Jane

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